Childhood is Priceless and Silicon Valley can Afford to Protect It

The choice we face as a society is whether to uphold our commitment to children, or to uphold Big Tech's bottom line –while children to toil the fields of Silicon Valley, writes Baroness Beeban Kidron.

The 1834 Chimney Sweep Act pulled children out of chimneys and put them in school.

The 2005 Gambling Act made it illegal to invite or encourage a child to gamble, or even enter a casino or bookmaker.

The 2015 Smoke-free (Private Vehicles) Regulations prevented smoking in a car with a child passenger.

In each case a situation had developed that, by common consent, required adjustment – on behalf of children – irrespective of the cost to business.

Enter the Kids’ Code (or the Age Appropriate Design Code to give it its legal name), published in draft form by the Information Commissioner last Monday, just as the wake of the Government’s Online Harms white paper had subsided.

The Kids’ Code has a more singular purpose than the wide-ranging White Paper. Its remit - to institute a high bar of data protection for children. But it packs quite a punch.

Its definition of a child as anyone under the age of 18 challenges the industry norm of offering services to 13-year olds on the same basis as adults. It demands that if they have a minimum joining age, they must uphold it, bringing to an end the sector’s abject failure to deal with the 61% of UK kids with social media accounts who are underage.

Kids tell us that their online experience would be great - if it was less demanding, and was not swimming with porn, predators, distressing material and bullies. Why is it like this? Put simply, if you are a company whose eyewatering capital value is based on the amount of personal data you can collect, then you are incentivised to push users to spend ever more time online - clicking, watching, swiping, and engaging, however unsavoury the content and even if it drives your users to sleeplessness or self-harm.

On publication of the Code, the media screamed about kids being deprived of the ‘like’ button, but these reductive headlines obscured that the toxic nudge culture of a technology littered by addictive reward features. Hated by renegade tech insiders like Sean Parker (Facebook co-founder), Tristan Harris (ex-Google ethicist) and the grand man himself Tim Berners-Lee who says, the sector is “creating perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed”. For the first time in law the Code insists – in the case of kids – stop before it hurts.

The Code will make online services consider if their auto-play, their recommendations, their buzzes, flashes and notifications, are “demonstrably in a child’s best interests” before deploying them. And prevent using a child’s data to target them with content detrimental to their health and well-being. It demands that online services consider in advance if their service is Age Appropriate by design.

The Code’s 16 provisions cover a number of interconnected aspects of data protections such as high privacy default settings, geolocation, data sharing, security of connected toys, and the presentation of information or promotion of behaviours that fail to act in the ‘best interests of the child'; collectively articulating the protections that a child needs to remain a child online.

But what of the response?

The tech sector has already started trotting out its standard lines: it’s not technically possible; it will have obscure and ill-defined ‘unintended consequences’; and cynically they correlate being starved of children’s data with an attack on freedom of speech – a sure fire way of igniting their twitter army.

All of this, of course, is code for two things: ‘this will affect our bottom line’ and ‘we’re tech - we should be treated differently’. The sector has successfully created a culture of exceptionalism, wherein it denies the responsibility undertaken by every other business - from a corner shop to big pharma – that keeping children safe is the non-negotiable price of doing business.

The inventors of the digital environment valorised the notion that all users would be equal. A warming thought, until you realise that if all users are treated equally then de facto a child is being treated as an adult. If you treat a child as an adult, you rob them of the rights, privileges and legal frameworks that protect and respect their status as children. In an interconnected world, a being forced into underage adulthood in one setting, erodes the very concept of childhood itself.

The choice we face as a society, is whether to uphold our commitment to children, or to uphold the sector’s bottom line –while children to toil the fields of Silicon Valley. That should be a no-brainer. After all, it's nearly 200 years since we took kids out of the chimney and put them in school.

Bring on the Code.


About the author

Baroness Beeban Kidron is a Crossbench Peer who introduced the Age Appropriate Design Code into the Data Protection Act 2018. She is Founder and chair of the 5Rights Foundation.



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